I went with my books to the museum
            to see the painting
my professor had assigned

            because he feared,
he said, I’d grown too attached
            to beauty, but the horse

was behind glass: the doors
            to its gallery
locked–all the guards

            that summer on strike–so only
parts of the painting
            could be spied

through cracks: a corner
            of canvas the color
of a martini olive glowing green,

            then gold, then butterscotch
under the lights. What I saw
            of the horse then

was what I knew already
            from class: something
between silk and money, gilt

            and rubbed brass–no sense
of the field in which it reared:
            the actual thing my professor

wanted me to study: that nothingness
            of green and gold
from which Whistlejacket rose,

            the painting incomplete,
due to accident, or perhaps absence
            was always the point:

there was never meant to be
            a fence, a rider, an estate;
never meant to be

            an artist, even: Stubbs
had erased humanity entirely
            from his painting, my professor

said, rejecting it
            as if the horse,
as subject, was not

            also a particular part
of humanity: to see
            a horse is to see

the grooms, stables, palaces
            out of which its seed
was taken over oceans,

            traded and bred. The horse
carries all things
            inside it: it is the product

and not just the argument
            of beauty, so everything
invisible in the painting

            becomes present
to the mind, even
            as my professor insisted

I did not need to see
            these things to appreciate
the horse’s singularity

            of line and shadow, which is all
the true artist really needs,
            he said, not the fussy

more of context, ideology:
            the mind must be greater
than bodies, politics, things

            my professor hated
about Whistlejacket, even as he wanted me
            to study it, to take apart

its genre if not its style. Portraiture
            was a woman’s art,
he insisted, like still

            life, landscape: the intimate
quotidian details
            that only those cut off

from a larger world
            would think to paint.
Even the way

            Stubbs posed this horse
sentimentalized it,
            its one eye fixed

upon the admiring
            viewer, ears pricked
as he rears, balletic,

            up. Imperious
as any general or king, which,
            even as Stubbs stripped the human

pose of its self-
            importance, reproduced
its attitudes, gestures:

            a mimicry that,
in the end,
            some part of me, too, felt

self-consciously simple.
            But wasn’t the horse
always a symbol

            of self-consciousness?
And how else to imagine power
            but through flesh,

which, when made beautiful,
            makes power
beautiful as well?

            Weren’t certain artists,
I wondered to myself, required
            to be less visible

than others, certain artists forced
            to be pure spectacle, and
weren’t these often

            the same artists?
I didn’t ask such questions
            at twenty, dismayed

only by the possibility
            that representation
was thoughtless

            reproduction, bodies
generated out of bodies, one student
            called it: the future

was abstraction,
            which emptied the figurative
of its crass fidelity

            to the “too pretty”
world, as my professor called
            my sketches

of parents, lovers,
            tossing aside these drawings
even as he called me

            once into his office to ask
if I photographed
            as good as I looked. “Too pretty”

is a charge one might lob
           at Whistlejacket,
though of course

           there is still
that emptiness, the widening field
           highlighting both the horse

and its absence: Stubbs’
           self-hatred enclosed
inside the little silver gleam

           of a shoeing nail
shining from its hoof:
           a reminder

of his father, perhaps: a farrier, a drunk
           whose menial work
Stubbs despised

           and so he turned
to midwifery anatomies instead,
           drawing pictures of dead

pregnant women,
           cutting into them
to teach himself

           what every muscle
of both bodies looked like. Art
           should not be classical

fabrication, Stubbs thought,
           an early corollary
to my professor’s

           argument, perhaps:
the classical being too
           ornate and allusive

to be serious, as Stubbs
           believed nature was art’s
truest subject. Nature alone

           can teach us
everything, he said,
           and so he moved

his son and common-law wife
           to the country to draw horses
by suspending their corpses

           in a barn,
injecting them with wax
           then cutting them down

through layers of tissue
           and fat to bone.
It takes 11 weeks

           for a horse to rot; it takes years
to make a book
           of their anatomical drawings

no engraver will publish, so costly
           they are to reproduce, so useless
to any other artist

           than Stubbs himself.
Unable to see Whistlejacket
           in the National Gallery,

I went to the Royal Academy of Arts
           instead to see
his archive, sketches of Arabians

           with pleated manes Stubbs scratched
in graphite, grey and white flanks
           rippling; each pale,

raised hoof veined
           as a slice of cratered moon.
So much lavish,

           microscopic detail
of neck and hide
           I could see

some part of my own mania
all my urge to describe and describe

           gleamed within these sketches,
as if such details
           would bring me closer

to what might be called
           the truth. I have always
confused the painstaking

           for intelligence. Always
the part for the whole.
           I thought, for example,

if I could please
           my professor, it meant
the world of art itself

           would open up. All it meant
was a breath in my ear, a hand
           strolling casually

down my back. Both of us
           wanted to take me
out of the picture.

           And now that I’m a professor
and artist myself, I admit
           I’m bored

by the indifference
           of that indiscretion: I hardly felt,
even then, offended

           by it, merely embarrassed
to be so unbalanced
           by this caricature

of a desire we both
           flailed towards and
chafed against. But now

           what am I to do
about beauty, about
           my fear that beauty

has made me arrange
           every experience in word
and image too neatly

           for them to bear
much semblance to life:
           my grasping,

vicious sex; my ambition;
           all the little betrayals
that have followed after?

           What has art been for me
but a desire to fit myself
           into an illusion

that there’s recompense for the pain
           of seeing
and being seen?

           And doesn’t some part of me,
even now, agree with the professor’s
           stark definitions

of excellence, which
           I once found elegant
in their simplicity: the false

           line demarcating greatness
from mediocrity? Haven’t I
           sought out such authority

myself, haven’t such rules
           pushed me
towards my own

           creation, the point
of beauty being
           not its pleasure but its increase

as I copied out the world
           line by line, lulled
into an ecstasy

           that resembled negation?
Why deny my attractions
           unless they shame me

with their sheen
           of the inauthentic I once sensed
in the postcards, notebooks, scarves

           with Whistlejacket’s image
stamped on them, the shock of the horse
           lessening each time I saw it

reproduced? The summer
           I spent studying Whistlejacket
in London I was twenty, sick

           with desire for a man
who would not touch me, eating
           first too little, then too much;

I could barely speak,
           could barely hold a pencil
in class. I dreamed

           I might draw a world
this man wanted to enter
           with me.

I dreamed I could become
           art itself: was all this why
my professor chose Whistlejacket

           for me to study, did he disdain
the horse because in it he recognized
           my sex or my drawings,

or was it a punishment
           to send me on an errand
I could never accomplish?

           He must have known,
because of the strikes,
           no one could see

the painting: it was a trick
           to send me to the gallery
to stare at doors and glass, a slice

           of gold, its hint
of nothing. Empty yourself,
           he’d commanded,

cupping his hand
           over my brush.
For years after that class,

           I stopped drawing. I couldn’t
get past seeing my failure
           with art, couldn’t

stop seeing more of Stubbs
           emerge from his painting.
When I look at images

           of Whistlejacket now, I see
human eyes staring, frightened,
           out: a gaze

that seems to pierce
           the veil between fact
and ideal, art

           and surgery, the stallion
rearing from its perch of grainy light, caught
           in a pose that can’t be held

except in memory.
           It made me wonder
if Stubbs had ever even seen

           this horse
or just drew, finally,
           the souls of all the dead

pregnant women he’d dissected. Now
           I suspect he’d hung
a horse from the rafters

           of his barn: its metal hooks
tearing through flesh to duplicate
           the pose, legs yanked

out and apart
           as the long neck arches
so the dished-in face

           could stare back
at its creator. Ghastly
           to picture it: imagined

life contained
           within a real corpse,
a body in a body that’s nothing

           but architecture.
What did Stubbs think
           about cutting up those women

but that some more
           vivid truth might be found
bursting from time’s shadow:

           death to life, death
as life, the painting assembled
           from inert

material. Would I know
           beauty at all if I did not know
death, stopped

           on the street one afternoon
by a woman who asked,
           Do you really know

how to appreciate your youth?
           And what is the point
of me telling you all this anyway?

           What more of me
or of Whistlejacket can you picture
           after hearing it, all my little

fears and vanities smeared
           across the canvas but in such
pretty colors they do not

           offend; let me
polish this up, let me make it
           a river of beaten gold in which

all stories, selves dissolve.
           Once again, I have failed
at explaining myself.

           I gave you a pretty horse
when what you wanted
           was the field, the one

I sat at the borders of all summer
           long, crouched
behind locked doors,

           writing everything down
I could not see
           about the painting,

until my notebooks filled
           with doors and glass,
and the class ended,

           and the essay
was turned in, the drawings

and the man I wanted
           sailed off to Thailand, and only
these notebooks now remain detailing

           how I never once
saw Whistlejacket,
           never drew a single thing

so well it felt like a mind
           ever in the act
of taking itself apart. Only one thing

           more do I recall: the last day
I visited Whistlejacket, a man
           and his girlfriend

stood beside me at the gallery’s
           locked entrance, peering in, as I did,
at the painting’s fragments

           until a beam
of sudden light fell on part
           of the canvas, penetrating,

illuminating color, so that
           the horse’s flank and backdrop both
appeared to open: the gold,

           the red, the green,
the ochre
           making the horse shudder

from its distance, disappear
           into the field
and come alive again, shimmering

           through the very slats
of the door behind which
           we stood, where the young man

beside me turned
           to his companion,
grimaced, and said, Well,

           perhaps I find myself
holding back a bit
           on that one, at which point

I wanted to kill him,
           so astonished was I
at his disgust (Sketch

           for horse-
mad girls, he called it, walking off), at what
           he had mistaken

from his distance:
           I saw at once the painting
was not meant for him;

           it made me feel
for the first time the true
           power of beauty:

not to attract but to repulse
           those who would withhold
themselves from it, terrified

           of being entered
by all they saw.
           What did my desire

for beauty mean,
           finally, but that I believed
I could survive it,

           could expand
to become part of it:
           it is not the loss

of consciousness but its
           extension, the space
where you and I

           meet and dissolve, meet
and pull apart:
           the painting preserving

its own privacy by vanishing
           before anyone
who refuses it. It made me tender

           toward the horse, the field
that were always
           the same thing

in the end, the particulars
           of one blurred into the universal
possibilities of the other.

           Anyone who was willing
could enter: the doors
           to time’s knowledge

are always unlocked.
           One body
open to the next, and the next:

           the horse, the field
which has no precedent, where I
           have entered the field.

Paisley Rekdal is the author of four books of nonfiction, and seven books of poetry, including NightingaleAppropriate: A Provocation, and, most recently, West: A Translation, which was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the 2024 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. She is the editor and creator of the digital archive projects WestMapping Literary Utah, and Mapping Salt Lake City. The former Utah poet laureate, she teaches at the University of Utah where she directs the American West Center.


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